12 April 2013
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote himself into much of his work and many of the noted symbols and patterns that appear in The Great Gatsby are based on Fitzgerald's own experiences. Wealth, status, and east versus west are some of the more commonly discussed patterns and symbols in the book. However there is one that curiously is rarely discussed and that is drinking. In a life and a book saturated with liquor both the main characters, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, are repeatedly described as non-drinkers. In the book the drink and sober duality is overturned so that the characters that act "soberly" and down to earth are the drinkers and the non drinkers are out of touch with reality; they are dreamers and act "drunk." On another level Fitzgerald ties multiple themes with drink going even deeper and more personal with the mesmerizing El Greco scene near the end of the book. "I have just the story for your book. Its not written yet. An American girl falls in love with an officier Francais at a Southern camp. Since I last saw you I’ve tried to get married + then tried to drink myself to death but foiled, as have been so many good men, by the sex and the state I have returned to literature" (Brucolli, 34, original spelling) Fitzgerald's 1919 letter to Edmund Wilson is prescient to the novel The Great Gatsby written much later between 1924 and 1925. In the letter he outlines his dream to write a story that clearly revolves around his meeting and unsuccessful wooing of Zelda Sayre in 1918. It was obviously an idea for him even before he wrote his first novel "This Side of Paradise" in 1920. In this letter he also talks about drinking himself to death in relationship to the failure of his marrying Zelda. It's a casual remark but it does highlight his drinking which from an early age was notorious and became an increasingly important part of his and Zelda's life together after they did marry in 1920. Scott and Zelda drank extensively so it's curious that Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan don't often drink in The Great Gatsby. It's such an important part of their character that other characters in the book mention it several times. They are idealized for it: "They (Daisy and Tom) moved with a fast crowd, all of them young and rich and wild, but she came out with an absolutely perfect reputation. Perhaps because she doesn't drink." (77) For Gatsby, Nick remarks: "I wondered if the fact that he was not drinking helped to set him off from his guests." (50) This pattern of non-drink comments idealizes the characters and, for Gatsby, his dream of restarting his relationship with Daisy. Other characters drink and it reinforces the reader's perception of them as sober, practical and down to earth. Tom Buchanan "took down his drink as if it were a drop in the bottom of a glass." (10) His drinking is aggressive and practical, but not excessive. References to drink also occur close to some of his most matter of fact and sober judgements. " 'I'd be a God damned fool to live anywhere else' " (10) he tells Nick as he drinks. The same patterning roughly holds true for the other drinkers; Nick, Jordan and Myrtle. Their characters, with their own practical and grounded sensibilities, are highlighted in a pattern of references to drinking. It's Jordan turning down a drink from Tom that initiates Nick's curiosity about her and brings her firmly into the story with her "wan, charming, discontented face." (11) An earthy and carnal experience of life is associated with drinking to further ground the characters. Both Tom and Myrtle are shown as aggressively sexual and aggressive drinkers. The first thing Tom does entering his love nest with Myrtle is to pull out a bottle of whisky. On a more subtle level Nick is also grounded. As he drinks at Myrtle's party he peruses "Simon Called Peter," a book about...